Colleges get break on default penalties

Only 21 colleges with high default rates — 20 for-profits and one public adult education program — are set to lose access to student aid this year. Many more were at risk. At the last minute, the U.S. Department of Education decided to omit some defaulted loans when calculating default rates

The rate is based on the percentage of borrowers who defaulted three years after entering repayment. Tuesday, the department announced it wouldn’t count borrowers who defaulted on one loan but not on a second loan. In some cases, borrowers must repay different loan-servicing companies, which can cause confusion. The adjustment was made only for colleges that risked losing eligibility for student aid.

It’s a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card applied selectively with no transparency, writes Clare McCann on EdCentral. Cherry-picked colleges now have lower default rates than colleges that weren’t at risk of sanctions. “There’s no indication of which institutions benefited, in which sectors, or by exactly how much.”

 Federal regulations already provide opportunities for colleges to appeal their default rates based on a variety of factors, including poor-quality servicing. Why not simply run this process before finalizing the rates, rather than oddly offering up this upfront assistance?

High-default colleges get a break, but students don’t, adds McCann. Borrowers still are considered in default, even if it isn’t counted against their college.

Community colleges and historically black colleges and universities — both with low-income students and high default rates — had lobbied for relief, notes Inside Higher Ed. “On Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was pleased that no historically black colleges and universities would face penalties for their default rates this year. Fourteen historically black institutions had default rates above the 30-percent threshold last year.”

Default rates fell slightly for community colleges, the Education Department announced. No community colleges face sanctions.

Critics said the last-minute adjustment undercuts accountability.

“If a school isn’t held accountable for a default, then the borrower shouldn’t be either,” said Debbie Cochrane, a researcher at the Institute for College Access and Success.

Representative George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, was one lawmaker who pushed for the expanded three-year default rates. He questioned the department’s adjustment to the loan rates on Tuesday.

“Any changes in the student loan system that reduce transparency and consistency may compromise our ability to hold poor-performing colleges accountable,” Miller said in a statement. “The department should be doing everything it can to ensure student borrowers who have defaulted have every opportunity for redress.”

Community college advocates praised the adjustment. “We believe that the department has acted responsibly by not holding financially needy students hostage to the shortcomings of servicers and other parties involved in loan administration,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Trained, jobless and in debt

Joe DeGrella of Louisville trained as a cardiology technician but works at AutoZone. Credit: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Millions of laid-off Americans have used federal aid to train for new jobs, reports the New York Times. Yet many end up jobless and in debt.

It’s not clear the $3.1 billion Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which was reauthorized last month, improves trainees’ odds of finding a job or their improving their earnings.  The feds don’t keep track.

When Joe DeGrella’s construction company failed, he met with a federally funded counselor, who “provided him with a list of job titles the Labor Department determined to be in high demand,” reports the Times. He chose a college certified to offer job training and received a federal retraining grant.

Two years studying to be a cardiology technician at Daymar College, a for-profit in Louisville, left him with $20,000 in debt and no job. Now 57, he moved into his sister’s basement and works at an AutoZone.

About 21 million jobless people entered retraining at community colleges, vocational and business schools, and four-year universities in 2012.

“The jobs they are being trained for really aren’t better paying,” said Carolyn Heinrich, director of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the University of Texas.

Laid-off workers spend less to take classes at community colleges. However, completion rates low. Defaults are a growing problem.

At Florida Keys Community College, the default rate is 19.4 percent, reports the Times.

The college charges nearly $11,000 for a two-year degree to get a job as a nursing assistant. Median — not starting pay — for a nursing assistant in Florida is less than $26,000 a year.

The updated WIA requires states to “track former students to determine if training helped them find work with sustainable wages,” reports the Times.

. . . In some states, data and academic studies have suggested that a vast majority of the unemployed may have found work without the help of the Workforce Investment Act.

In South Carolina, for example, 75 percent of dislocated workers found jobs without training, compared with 77 percent who found jobs after entering the program, according to state figures.

The Times confuses the student loan program with workforce development,writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral. Job trainees get grants though many also borrow to pay for college programs.

WIA spends $3 billion a year, the Higher Education Act provide over $150 billion a year in federal grants, loans, and tax credits. “A large share of that money goes to support students earning associate’s degree and occupational certificates,” writes McCarthy.

The government is “a terrible prophet for labor needs down the road,” writes Ed Morrissey on Hot Air.  The WIA should subsidize “employer-based training for jobs that need filling now or in the near future,” ensuring that people are trained for “real jobs.” Even then, taxpayers will end up paying for training that would have occurred anyhow.

Morrissey recalls the classic Tennessee Ernie Ford song:

You pass 16 classes and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me, it wouldn’t be cool.
I owe my soul to the vocational school.

Bad credit? Proposal eases PLUS loan rules

People who’ve fallen up to $2,085 behind on their debts will be able to take out federal PLUS loans under a proposed regulation relaxing credit requirements reports Inside Higher Ed. In addition, the Education Department will analyze only two years of a prospective borrower’s credit history, down from five years.

In 2011, the Education Department tightened standards for the PLUS loan program, triggering tens of thousands of loan denials due to bad credit.  Leaders at historically black colleges and universities and their allies lobbied hard for looser credit rules, arguing that minority families were affected the most.

Low-income parents can take out Parent PLUS loans without showing their ability to repay the debt. Income-based repayment is not an option.

“The loans are both remarkably easy to get and nearly impossible to get out from under for families who’ve overreached,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education and ProPublica in The Parent Loan Trap. There’s no check on the borrower’s income, employment status or other debt. There’s no loan cap.

Many of the colleges where students rely the most on Parent PLUS loans specialize in art and music.

Consumer advocates worry that low-income families are taking on debts they can’t repay.  “This loan is not a safe product for low-income borrowers,” said Rachel Fishman, a New America Foundation policy analyst.

Some middle-income parents are deferring retirement to repay their PLUS loans or going into default, the New York Times reported in 2012. Children can’t help out in many cases: Some have dropped out and others have taken low-paying jobs.

The default rate for Parent PLUS loans has tripled in recent years, according to national data. However, remains below the default rates for other federal student loans, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Higher ed a la carte


Should students loans be available for job training?
Accreditation is a higher ed cartel, argues Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, on The Federalist. He proposes letting states accredit alternative postsecondary programs, such as job training, apprenticeships, hybrid on-campus/on-the-job models and distance-learning options. People seeking skills — but not necessarily a degree — could assemble the education they need, a la carte, using federal aid to pay their costs.

Under the federal Higher Education Act, students are eligible for Title IV student loans and grants only if they attend formally accredited institutions. That makes some sense, for purposes of quality control. Except that under the law, only degree-issuing academic institutions are allowed to be accredited. And only the U.S. Department of Education gets to say who can be an accreditor.

By blocking new competitors, the system drives up costs, argues Lee. That prices most Americans “out of the post-secondary opportunities that make the most sense for them” and plunges “most of the rest deep into debt to pursue an increasingly nebulous credential.”

The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act would give states the power to create their own, alternative systems of accrediting Title IV-eligible higher education providers. . . . State-based accreditation would augment, not replace, the current regime. (College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep it.) But the state-based alternatives would not be limited to accrediting formal, degree-issuing “colleges.” They could additionally accredit specialized programs, apprenticeships, professional certification classes, competency tests, and even individual courses.

States could allow the Sierra Club to accredit an environmental science program, a labor union to accredit its apprenticeship program and Boeing to accredit an aerospace engineering “major,” Lee writes. Professors — or others with expertise — could go freelance, offering their teaching talents online.

In today’s customizable world, students should be able to put their transcripts together a la carte – on-campus and online, in classrooms and offices, with traditional semester courses and alternative scenarios like competency testing – and assistance should follow them at every stop along the way.

Employers already have shifted a lot of job training to community colleges. Now they could keep it in house — if their state agreed — with federal taxpayers footing the bill. Smashing the cartel could make today’s quality control problems even worse, responds Jordan Weissmann on Slate.

The entire point of requiring schools to be accredited before they can become eligible for federal aid is to make sure students don’t take out loans for a worthless education while burning taxpayer money in the bargain. As the rise of unscrupulous for-profit colleges demonstrates, the accreditors have basically abdicated that responsibility. Adding yet more accreditors into the mix, and making more programs eligible to profit off of loan dollars—without making it easier to kick schools out—would only worsen our problems with predatory colleges.

“Agencies might be more willing to punish a bad actor if they could downgrade its accreditation status rather than revoke it entirely—which is the only option available to them right now,” writes Weissmann. That’s one of the ideas proposed by New America policy analyst Ben Miller on EdCentral.

CC defaults soar, despite low debt

Community colleges are struggling to pay back their student loans, writes Andrew Kelly in Forbes.  While two-year public colleges charge low tuition, the default rate is high.

Only about 20 percent of community college students borrow, and 70 percent borrow less than $6,000. But low graduation rates put even small borrowers at risk of owing more than they can repay.

“Unfortunately, less debt does not equal fewer defaults,” writes Kelly. “And default’s consequences, like wage garnishment and severe credit damage, can hurt borrowers even more than a bloated loan balance.”

Policymakers should turn their attention from total debt to students’ ability to repay, Kelly argues. Income-based repayment plans “try to do exactly this, but they are far too generous to graduate students,” who often have high debts and high incomes.

The “front-end problem” is that “student loan programs encourage attendance at any program, at any college, and at any price.”

That means we subsidize a lot of failure. According to my analysis of the most recent federal data, about 37 percent of loan disbursements in the Stafford and Parent PLUS programs (loans for undergraduates) in 2012-2013 went to colleges with six-year graduation rates that were 40 percent or lower. That’s a lot of loans to people whose chances of finishing a degree are worse than flipping a coin.

What we need are policies that push students toward more effective and affordable options on the front end: better consumer information, income-share agreements, and risk-sharing that gives colleges skin in the game.

 The Student Loan Ranger has advice for community college students on how to avoid the debt trap. 

Corinthian crashes

Under investigation for falsifying job placement rates, for-profit Corinthian Colleges will sell 85 campuses and close 12 others. The national company runs Everest, WyoTech and Heald career colleges.

The Department of Education had put a hold on Corinthian’s access to federal student aid. Under an agreement reached last week, the DOE will provide $35 million in student aid funding to provide time to sell or close the colleges. Corinthian’s finances will be monitored closely by an independent auditor.

Corinthian receives $1.4 billion in Pell grants and federal student loans each year, which represents 85 percent of total revenuesreports the Miami Herald.

The company is facing charges in several states, including Florida and California, of exploiting and misleading low-income students.

Florida’s community colleges, which are some of the best in the nation, often offer similar programs at a far lower price. For example, Everest’s Pompano Beach location charges about $15,000 in tuition for a medical assisting diploma; at Broward College, the same program costs $1,698 for in-state students.

The Florida attorney general’s investigation of Everest has produced 100 pages of complaints, reports the Herald.

The California attorney general’s lawsuit cited internal Corinthian documents that described its students as “isolated” individuals with “low self-esteem” who have “few people in their lives who care about them.”

The California lawsuit states “the placement rates published by [Corinthian] are at times as high as 100 percent, leading prospective students to believe that if they graduate they will get a job. These placement rates are false and not supported by the data. In some cases there is no evidence that a single student in a program obtained a job during the time frame specified in the disclosures.”

In some instances, the suit says, Corinthian paid temp agencies to give its graduates short-lived jobs — so it could inflate the job placement numbers, and maintain the accreditation required to receive federal aid.

Corinthian’s enrollment has fallen to 72,000 students, estimates the DOE.

National Journal has more on the fall of Corinthian.

Boomerang

Annie Kasinecz, 27, lives with her mother in Downers Grove, Illinois. She borrowed $75,000 to earn a degree in advertising and public relations at Loyola University in Chicago. Now working as a project coordinator, she’s lived at home rent-free for four years.  Credit Damon Casarez for The New York Times

The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave home, predicts the New York Times Magazine. With college loans and low-paying jobs, they can’t afford to pay rent.

One in five people in their 20s and early 30s is currently living with his or her parents. And 60 percent of all young adults receive financial support from them. That’s a significant increase from a generation ago, when only one in 10 young adults moved back home and few received financial support.

. . . Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. . . . And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

The photographer, who lives at home and freelances, was graduated from an art college with $120,000 in debt. 

Alexandria Romo, 28, also a Loyola graduate, earned an economics degree but says she “had no idea what I was doing when I took out those loans” at the age of 18. She borrowed $90,000. Romo wishes she’d been taught about student loans, math and finance before borrowing at 12.5 percent interest. Romo lives at home in Austin and works at a security-guard company. Her dream is to be an environmentalist.

Community college students may struggle to graduate, but they don’t run up huge debts in the process.

An open door to debt?

Community colleges provide an open door — to failure and debt, argues Community Colleges and the Access Effect  by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson.  Scherer, an English professor at St. Louis Community College, specializes in developmental education. Anson, a former remedial writing instructor, runs the University of Iowa’s Upward Bound Project.

Poorly prepared students have little chance of success, write Scherer and Anson. Raising admissions requirements would strengthen academic classes for prepared students and protect the unprepared from debt.

Open-door admissions can perpetuate inequity, the authors tell Inside Higher Ed‘s Paul Fain in an e-mail interview. One mentors a a brain-damaged young man who was shot in the head when he was 16. He enrolled in community college, failed all his courses and went into debt that made him ineligible for a job training program. He works part-time for $7.35 an hour.

As students’ skills and ability levels declined, community colleges designed lengthy remedial sequences, Scherer and Anson write. Some “credit-bearing coursework . . .  is equal to standard kindergarten fare.”

The national college completion agenda movement is threatening academic standards, they charge. Advocates also blame remedial courses for high failure rates, ignoring “the monumental impact of academic preparation, aptitude and student motivation on completion.”

The rise of performance-based funding puts more pressure on community colleges to lower standards in order to raise completion rates, they add. That will make community college graduates unemployable in a competitive workforce.

“Reasonable entrance standards, coupled with a more compassionate approach to advising and enrolling community college students” will help students succeed, they argue.

 Some current degree-seeking students would thrive more — completion-wise and financially — in apprenticeships and job-training programs than they would in traditional two- or four-year degree programs.

Some are in desperate need of short-term training programs to financially stabilize them so that one day they might return and succeed in a more traditional degree program. Instead of repeatedly enrolling in and failing developmental education coursework aimed at eventually qualifying students for college-level coursework, many persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, are truly in need of affordable postsecondary programs to assist them in developing a career plan and independent living skills, including learning to manage their money and their personal safety and health, for example.

A few community colleges now require students to test at the seventh-grade level or above.

Community colleges are about second chances, responds Matt Reed. We don’t know who will take advantage of the opportunity before they try. And the alternatives for students who are turned away are very bleak.

Carnevale: Link loans to value

President Obama’s student loan plan, which limits repayment to 10 percent of the borrower’s disposable income, closes the barn door after the horse is gone, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, on NPR.  The fundamental question about college debt is whether students are “getting value for money,” says Carnevale.

Are we helping people cope with debts they never should have taken on in the first place?

Students and their parents don’t always think through what they’re spending for college and what they’re likely to get for it, says host Michel Martin.  If students know they’ll only have to pay 10 percent of their income — with the unpaid balance forgiven in 10 to 20 years — might they be tempted to think “it’s not going to be that big of a deal?”

That’s a risk, says Carnevale. If the system isn’t linking loans to long-term earnings, it will continue to be ineffecient.

Ultimately, the taxpayer pays for that as do many of the students who find these loans still overwhelming. That is, it’s not as helpful if you’ve built the loan and it’s going to burden you for a number of years. Just have somebody help you with the burden. The real issue is ensuring that you minimize the burden in the first place by linking value — economic value — to the loan.

The loan policy will help some people, he says. More fundamentally, we need to “ensure the young people know what they’re getting into when they borrow and make sure they’re not borrowing trouble down the road.”

Stop telling 18-year-olds to follow their “passion” — and run up huge debts, writes economist Peter Morici in the Baltimore Sun.

Easy access credit has pushed up college tuition far faster than inflation generally and even health care costs. University presidents are happy to pad bureaucracies and indulge faculty who would rather undertake research than teach, if students can borrow money to pay for it all.

College primarily “is about acquiring skills that have value in the marketplace,” writes Morici.

Borrowing trouble

President Obama’s executive order expanding Pay As You Earn (PAYE) will provide some debt relief to some borrowers, writes Diana Carew, director of the Young American Prosperity Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. But it also will boost subsidies for a “broken higher-education financing model” and reinforce the idea that college attendance is the only postsecondary option.

While everyone needs some form of post-secondary education to earn a living, not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, writes Carew.

The wage premium for college graduates is growing not because the degree is worth so much more, but because high school diplomas as worth so much less. In fact, real earnings for recent college graduates have been falling over the last decade, and underemployment remains at record highs.

. . . Moreover, the new tools of digital learning — such as online courses — should be driving education costs down, yet tuition continues to climb. That suggests the entire financing model for higher education needs reform. And because there are too few viable pathways into the workforce after high school, our $100 billion per year federal student aid system is channeling people into four-year colleges who may be better suited for less expensive options.

Expanding PAYE may help some borrowers now, but it  almost certainly “will exacerbate the burden on the federal student aid system in the long run, argues Carew. “Borrowers have less incentive to make smart borrowing decisions, or complete in a timely manner. And schools have less incentive to control costs.”

Expanding PAYE “won’t do much to make college more affordable,” writes Clare McCann on The Hill.  It will affect only people who’ve left college and already are eligible for income-based repayment. They must be Direct Loan borrowers — but most pre-2007 borrowers used the now-defunct Federal Family Education Loan program instead.

Few borrowers have opted for income-based repayment so far because the plans are so complex, she writes. “Gimmicks like this one don’t help much — in fact, they make the system even more complex.”